R18+ rating added for videogames … but are children protected?

The videogame classification scheme was revised to better protect minors from inappropriate content. Ian Muttoo

New guidelines for the classification of videogames have been released by Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and, despite being a step in the right direction, the revisions are largely disappointing and a missed opportunity.

The Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games – which were revised to account for the introduction of an R18+ classification – are an important step towards the enhanced protection of minors which has been held out as a result of the reform.

Under the existing system, the highest legal classification a game can be given is MA15+. This year the Parliament has amended the law to allow an R18+ classification, in response to community concerns that the strong, contextually justified violence available in MA15+ was not suitable for anybody under 18. However it was necessary to change the guidelines to ensure that level of violence would no longer be available at MA15+.

While the revised guidelines show an obvious intent to meet community expectations about enhanced protection for minors – by tightening up the level of violence permissible at MA15+ – there was a disappointing lack of public consultation during their creation.

Instead the draft guidelines were simply placed on a website, with no proper call for public comment. As the guidelines are more important to the policy aim than the introduction of the new classification, consultation on them should have been at least as widely publicised.

Nor does there appear to have been any proper legislative drafting process; rather the guidelines were passed around for individual ministers to make their own changes and additions.

AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

The result is a patch-up job with minimal substantive changes. Worse, some of the wording is awkward and unclear.

The test for sexual violence at the R18+ level, for instance, stretches logic by distinguishing between “implied sexual violence” which is “visually depicted”, and that which is not visually depicted.

The guidelines go on to state that the classification does not permit implied sexual violence that is visually depicted if it is “interactive, not justified by context or related to incentives or rewards”. I doubt any self-respecting legislative drafter would have mixed up positives and negatives in this way.

The new guidelines also contain a restriction on depictions of “actual” sexual activity, thereby failing to recognise that nothing in a game is “actual”. The word, I imagine, was chosen to make a distinction from depictions of “implied” sexual activity, but if this was the case, a drafter would have known that the appropriate word would have been “explicit”.

Perhaps more importantly, the new guidelines contain more changes on sexual activity, nudity and drug use than they do on violence. It was violence driving the push for an R18+ classification in the first place and violence should have been central to the changes.

Rather, the violence-related changes come across as an afterthought; for example, all classification levels contain changes relating to sex, drugs and nudity but the criteria for non-sexual violence change only at G and MA15+. The dominance of the sex-related changes, in my view, further entrenches the classification system as one based on moralistic concerns rather than the clear evidence about what can influence children’s development in detrimental ways.

Australian Classification Board

I have been disappointed (but not surprised) to see a renewal of claims by the gaming industry of an absence of evidence violent interactive games (by demanding active engagement) can have a stronger influence on users than film (which demands only passive engagement).

Interactive games may not have been around long enough for there to be conclusive evidence about enhanced impact through interactivity, but as this UNICEF Multigrade Teacher’s Handbook reminds us, we do have plenty of evidence that children learn better by doing than by watching, especially through repetition and rewards.

The analogy to interactive and passive media experiences is powerful enough to justify a different approach to the classification of games.

Of course the comments sections of articles and online forums are still full of pundits protesting about an alleged lack of evidence that violent media of any kind can have an influence on its users.

These claims sound strange coming at the end of a lengthy campaign for an R18+ classification that was driven by hand-wringing about all the inappropriate material currently available to minors at MA15+.

pawpaw76

I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees some games are inappropriate for minors – the problem is that some people are happy to reach that conclusion based on a moralistic assessment of the material, or on gut-feeling and guesswork, or on the intent of the developer, rather than on the weight of the scientific evidence that exists as to how violent media can influence people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviour.

People who weigh in to the debate over the appropriate role of this evidence in policy formation nearly always presume that the main, or only, question is whether violent media begets violent behaviour. In doing so they overlook the more subtle but potentially widespread influences on thoughts and especially attitudes.

Desensitisation to violence is at least as big a concern for the future of our society as increased tendencies to aggressive behaviour. Possibly more so because, while parents and carers have some opportunity to notice and address behavioural changes, attitudinal ones might go unnoticed and unchecked until it is too late.

The revised guidelines for videogames are another lost opportunity for a root-and-branch, considered review to base the classification system on the science, rather than on guesswork and moral judgment.

If we are going to have a classification system based on the wide recognition that media content can be harmful to minors, it’s imperative that we take seriously the evidence about what is harmful, and build the criteria around that.

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